Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ukrainian Dmitro Kuleba are due to meet for the first time this Thursday in Turkey to try to find a solution to the conflict sparked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In principle, they will do so in the southern city of Antalya and in a three-way format, with the presence of their Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavusoglu. “Our most urgent objective is to stop the fighting,” explained the head of Turkish diplomacy when announcing the meeting, which he considered an “important step” towards peace and stability. Subsequently, the spokesperson of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zajarova, confirmed to the TASS agency the Russian participation in the meeting.
The initiative is the result of diplomatic efforts by Turkey, whose President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has spoken by telephone with around 20 heads of state and government since the start of the war, including a conversation this Sunday with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, and several with the President of Ukraine, Volodímir Zelenski. The Turkish Foreign Minister in turn held 40 telematic meetings with his counterparts to prepare the ground, including six with Kuleba and four with Lavrov. “That doesn’t count the messages that we send to each other continuously,” he added.
Turkey is one of NATO’s most reputable members – it joined in 1952 – but in recent years has preferred to negotiate its overseas expansion directly with the Kremlin. He bought a missile system from Russia that can pose a threat to Atlantic Alliance aircraft, yet he also sold weapons to Ukraine, especially drones that punish Russian military columns. How to combine all these variables became squaring the circle for the Erdogan government when Russia launched the war in Ukraine: Ankara condemned the “illegal invasion”, but abstained in the vote on expelling Russia of the Council of Europe; It has closed the strait to the passage of Russian military ships, but refuses to support EU and US sanctions, one of lime and the other of sand.
This is because it is one of the countries – apart from those directly involved – that stands to lose the most from the conflict. “Turkey follows a policy of balance. The main reason is that the two fighting states are important neighbors, with whom Turkey has strategic relations and a large volume of trade,” says Muhittin Ataman, an analyst at the pro-government think tank SETA.
In recent years, Erdogan has become accustomed to talking one-on-one with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, with whom it is easier for him to reach agreements than through the cumbersome institutional framework that relations entail. with its Western partners, whose negotiations There are always references to human rights, judicial impartiality and other issues, in his opinion, boring. At the same time, the Turkish government is afraid of angering Russia and getting it back from Russia by destabilizing scenarios such as Syria, Libya and the Caucasus, where the harmony between the two leaders has allowed each country to retain its sphere of influence. A few days before the start of the invasion of Ukraine, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov explained that the talks between the Russian military deployed in Syria and their Turkish counterparts were “very advanced”, and few want that hostilities resume. The bombing two years ago – which many analysts blame on the Russian air force – which killed 34 Turkish soldiers in Syria, but which Ankara avoided attributing to Moscow, is still remembered. “Turkey and Russia have succeeded in tempering their differences. There are issues on which they do not agree, but they try not to let that tarnish their relations”, defends Emre Ersen, professor of international relations at the University of Marmara.
Turkey’s caution can also be explained by economic reasons. Turkey buys a third of the gas and a quarter of the oil it consumes from Russia, and a Russian company is building Turkey’s first nuclear power plant. 80% of the wheat imported by Turkey comes from Russia and Ukraine, and the same goes for other cereals and sunflower oil. Rising commodity prices could have a detrimental effect in a Turkey where prices have doubled in just one year. Ersen also points out that the sanctions against Russia and the conflict itself will jeopardize two Turkish ways of making money: tourism (Russians and Ukrainians make up 27% of visitors to Turkey) and building in Turkey. foreign (Turkish companies have projects worth 18 billion euros in Russia) .
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Strategic alliance with Ukraine
Despite this apparent neutral position, there is great Turkish anger against Russia for its attack on Ukraine, explains Yörük Isik, an analyst at the thinking group American Middle East Institute and director of the Istanbul Bosphorus Observer consultancy firm, specializing in maritime issues. Erdogan met Zelensky in kyiv just three weeks before the Russian intervention: they signed a free trade agreement and the Turkish leader offered to mediate with Moscow. “Turkey is the biggest foreign investor in Ukraine, and there are hundreds of companies and thousands of Turkish citizens there. This relationship has a very important military aspect, because they are two countries that complement each other perfectly. What Turkey desperately needs, for example aircraft engines and technology, Ukraine has, and vice versa,” Isik points out.
Ukraine bought military vehicles from Turkey, ordered the construction of corvettes and received at least a dozen Bayraktar TB2 armed drones. A second batch arrived last week, already in the midst of war, but the Turkish government hid behind the fact that these are business deals conducted by a private company (a company, yes, owned by the family of a son-in-law of Erdogan). These drones were effective against the Russian advance, so much so that a song honoring the Turkish-made weapon became popular on social media. In addition, Turkish military companies had concluded agreements with the Ukrainian factory Motor Sich to manufacture the engines of the new Turkish attack helicopters, the TB2 drones and a superior model, the Akinci. This factory is located in Zaporizhia, near the front lines, and, according to Isik, “will probably become a target for Putin”.
In view of this, it is understood that Turkey invoked the Montreux Convention and prohibited transit through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits (through which the Mediterranean and the Black Sea communicate) to Russian military vessels, a measure required by kyiv from day one. of offensive. Last week, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavusoglu announced that Moscow had been asked to withdraw a request for four ships to pass. According to Reuters, they were two destroyers, a frigate and a reconnaissance ship.
“These are big words,” says Isik, who assures that for several weeks this flotilla consisted of seven ships, including part of the Russian Pacific Fleet and an army with cruise missiles, and circled the north of the Aegean Sea until several ships left for the south, which would indicate that “Turkey pressured Russia even before applying Montreux to prevent these ships from entering the Black Sea”. To sweeten the bad drink for Russia, Çavusoglu extended the ban on the passage of military ships through the strait “to all states”, which is not included in the Montreux Convention, which is limited to belligerent states only. . What is interesting, underlines the naval expert, is that NATO took its ships out of the Black Sea at the end of January, when it is customary for there to always be one on rotating patrol: “ Probably someone in Brussels made the decision not to give Russia the opportunity to look for provocations to use as an excuse”.
Closing the Turkish strait will not have much effect on the offensive in Ukraine in the short term, as there is already a large Russian naval presence in the Black Sea, including six ships from its Northern and Baltic fleets. But, says Professor Ersen, in the medium to long term, this could affect communication with the Russian deployment in Syria, as it forces all supplies to arrive by air.
Another effect of the conflict, if not quickly stopped, could be that Turkey strengthens its cooperation with Eastern European countries such as Bulgaria, Romania and Poland if it feels “threatened”. by Russia, believes Ataman. And also, it could lead to the normalization of relations between Turkey and the rest of NATO, since Ankara shows “its strategic value for security in Europe”.
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